On the occasion of his birthday, 160 years ago, on February 27, 1848 

At the Solitary Age of Twelve—Seven and Twelve Being Holy Numbers

The first of seven early music books
Reveals a boy methodical as Bach.
He studies Bach’s first 48. He looks
In detail, analyzing. “Let us talk,”
He seems to say, “Just you and I alone.
You give me notes and I make careful notes
In my replies,” establishing a tone
Of life-long worship and respect. No throats
Are needed in this conversation. Still,
The pages take the reverent boy’s replies.
He works throughout the book of beauties till
He fills it with his thoughts. His careful eyes
Take in the teaching, fingers taking down
The lessons. Hubert leans, a smiling frown.

 

Intellectualized Emotion

The young Parry put into his jottings that his favourite among them all was “my grand fugue in G major with three (own) subjects.”

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” ~ Robert Browning

He kept on writing at the tough one though,
Quite like an ancient hero given task,
Task, task, and harder task. Thus muscles grow.
You do what music and your teachers ask
And do it even harder, do it more.
You take the thing and make it fuller, large,
More intricate, complete. You stretch a score.
You write a denser piece and make it charge
With extra power. He wrote a fugue of grand
Complexity of not just one, or two,
But triple subjects all his own. His hand
Grasped far beyond the teacher’s aims, too few.
His century thought the major key of G
Was for emotions of a staid degree.

 

A Canon “Written in School”—in a Geometry Lesson?

His later comment on his childhood work
Remarks on one of these, a canon, that
It was “Written in School.” Did he shirk
His classroom duties, hiding where he sat
Behind the others doing problems from
A lesson book? The master would not guess
The boy was hoping that the notes would come
In harmonies like winning in a chess
Match. Canons flowed as sensuous as swirls
Of dragons: one, this one, was perfect blue
Of eye placed so . . . just so . . . in golden curls,
Curved scales. The teacher didn’t have a clue.
The boy who sat there at the back composed
Not angles — but melodies juxtaposed.

 

Psalm 130

From out of depths of sorrow came the sounds
Of Parry’s anthem (first of all) “In my
Distress.” The music came from deep chest wounds
Und Bach and Luther. Anguish reaches sky
And heaven only when the music climbs
From sources such as these. What troubles us
Is how the boy had suffered. Music chimes
Out from his mind, his heart, and hand to truss
The soul, a soul split far inside. The psalm
“Aus tiefer Not” comes out of him as lines
Shaped more like blood from crucifixion’s palm
And sword wounds up in gold and scarlet shrines.
Affliction makes him cry out note, and chord,
And melody for sister he adored.

 

Prime

The first real piece by Parry, or the one
He called his first, reveals through notes his clear
And sweet imagination. He has won
His way to poetry. He finds the sphere
Of youth’s sincerity. Variations
Reveal his talent, but the “first peice” proves
His power. Hubert calls them “variegations.”
He’s joking, boyish, but the music moves
Us. Purity of vision, if not spelled
Quite right, is dream-like nonetheless. The lines
Flow on. The future promise is both swelled
And focused presently in singing signs.
Fourteen, with childish penmanship, he still
Breaks through. His music will break through. It will.

 

Click here to read the rest of the sonnets in A Lively Hope

Phillip Whidden is a poet published in America, England, Scotland (and elsewhere) in book form, online, and in journals.  He has also had an article on Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est” published in The New Edinburgh Review.

 

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19 Responses

  1. James Sale

    Intriguing poems about a musician, though English, I am not all that familiar with; I didn’t know he was obsessed with Bach, my favourite composer, and this all provides fascinating reading. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Phillip Whidden

      Dear James Sale, Evan Mantyk, the editor, was concerned that American readers of the sequence would not know enough about Parry to be motivated to read the sequence. I suspect that many highly educated Britons are not fully acquainted with the man and his life, and so I’m not surprised that you did not know about the importance of Bach to Parry. Thanks for calling the material in the selection published by the Society “fascinating.” I have to confess that I was very ignorant about Parry, his life and his music until I started doing the work necessary to write the sequence. I found him to be more interesting that I had expected I would. The original idea for the sequence was that it would cover his whole life, not just his youth, and instead of being published on the anniversary of his birthday, the sequence would be published on the centenary of his death later this year. However, I have not been able to find a publisher I could interest in the magnum opus. Did you notice that Evan Mantyk provided a link so that you could read more than his selection–so that you can read the whole sequence about Parry’s youth?

      Reply
  2. C.B. Anderson

    Phillip,

    Many years ago I took a course at Harvard University Extension called The Philosophy of Art. There was a constellation of characteristics considered to be at the essence of all Art. One of these (the one I remember) was density of meaning. If only in this aspect of what constitutes Art, you have created some here. Thank you for that. I wonder, though, whether you can provide any links to performances of Parry’s compositions. I think that there are many people here who would be delighted to hear it. I echo James Sale’s remark about Bach. There is something visceral about Bach’s works that affects our rhythmic system while engaging the intellect at the same time. I read somewhere (author forgotten) that Austria must have the greatest possible PR experts, because they have managed to convince the world that Bach was an Austrian and that Hitler was a German.

    Reply
    • Phillip Whidden

      Dear C. B. Anderson, Thanks for that comment on strength in the sequence. A good example of that density of meaning (multi-layered meaning even in just one word) is the title “Prime” above (and part of) one of the sonnets.

      Here is Parry’s absolutely magisterial and rightly famous coronation anthem performed at every British coronation since the anthem was first composed:

      “I was glad”

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2FBBb14em8

      If you go to other recordings of it on YouTube you can see the Anglican choirs in England performing it.

      The unofficial national anthem of England (as distinct from the official national anthem of Britain) is Parry’s setting of a poem by William Blake:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yIWBO_7nio

      Another piece, one that is sung at many royal occasions of the highest sort (such as weddings), is a setting of words by Milton. Here “Blest Pair of Sirens) is:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XlMohFNPaag

      Most people do not notice that the perfect hymn melody for John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,” (Repton) is by Parry. Here it is with treble obligato over the last verse:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bk7SX3r59sc

      And below is a sovereign anthem by the young Parry’s first great teacher, Samuel Sebastian Wesley:

      “Blessed be the God and Father”:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfeQLy-XXXo

      Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks Phillip – no I didn’t notice the link; I’ll get to it this weekend. Keep up the great work – as for not finding a publisher, no news there! But the important thing is our own community of writers and defining that taste for real poetry in others. So there is hope.

      Reply
      • Phillip Whidden

        Dear James Sale, Thanks for your support. It is of course always good to have support from intelligent and literate critics such as you. Yes, real poetry struggles to find a platform–and almost never finds financial reward. Recently a friend sent me links to two separate performance “poets” whose “poetry” has leveraged them into posts paid at £30,000 a year. Their “poetry” is humourous doggerel. I reject the notion that doggerel is poetry. I suspect that you are more optimistic than I am. My first cousin in Hawaii reports that he heard the “poet laureate of America” say on NPR that over his whole career as a poet he had received only $25 for his poetry. Maybe it was some other shockingly puny sum. This is society’s way of punishing real poets. Or…if you are cynical enough…it is a strong indication of how great his poetry is since society is unwilling to pay for it.

    • James Sale

      Thank you CB for noticing my especial interest in Bach: “God has given to the human soul harmonious proportions … the music which can especially produce this kind of healing influence is that of JS Bach” – Aleks Pontvik, cited Roberto Assagioli in his masterwork, Psychosynthesis; and “A composition by Bach is an expression of the Primal Power which manifests itself in the infinite rotating worlds” – Albert Schweitzer. That about says it!

      Reply
      • Phillip Whidden

        As I understand the situation, Evan Mantyk, the editor here, is very partial to Bach.

  3. Wendy Bourke

    Wonderful pieces beautifully rendered … the rhyme and cadence are brilliant. We were in London 15 years ago and happened to come upon an outdoor concert – a choir singing the William Blake/Hubert Parry collaborative piece: ‘Jerusalem’. Incredible music!!! Thank you for stirring that lovely ember of a memory.

    Reply
    • Phillip Whidden

      Dear Wendy Bourke, That is high praise indeed. Thank you. “I was glad” when I read your response. If you look at my reply to C. B. Anderson (above) you will find links not just to “Jerusalem” by Parry but other high-minded pieces by him.

      Reply
  4. The Society

    Apologies… there was a typo in the title of this post originally and it has now been rectified. Thank you, Mr. Whidden, for sharing your illuminating poetry.

    -Evan

    Reply
  5. James A. Tweedie

    For all you Bach aficionados, Parry’s Fantasia and Fugue in G Major for organ is a nice contrast to the Victorian High Anglican choral style represented by the anthems Philip has so kindly linked. I suggest you skip the fantasia and jump straight to the fugue, which begins with a very disjointed, syncopated theme that he develops in a dramatic, baroque style, teasingly drawing the triple rhythm in the direction of a jig but then heading off in a completely different direction. Towards the end you can hear him turn the theme inside out and upside down. A lovely piece which shows the skill and divers talents of a composer worthy of Philips poetry.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-d4SdCBEDo

    Reply
  6. Phillip Whidden

    Dear James A. Tweedie, Thank you very much for that wonderfully helpful intervention. I enjoyed the Fantasia and the Fugue, not least because of your instructive comments. For others following this discussion let me add that if they are going to take your suggestion, they go to the fugue pronto, it begins at about 4:55 (four minutes and fifty-five seconds) into the YouTube recording. I balk only at my poetry being mentioned in the same breath as Parry’s tremendous music.

    Reply
  7. Basil Drew Eceu

    “Jerusalem” by William Blake, by Parry’s music set, so stirs my heart and soul, its greatness is hard to forget; and I am thankful Mr. Whidden has reminded us the debt we owe to those inspired individuals. His topic, too, is one that I, do very much admire; he brings the past up to the present, striving for the high’r, in anecdotal bio-sonnets dancing round time’s facts, like peris in the varied facets of H. Parry’s acts.

    Reply
    • Phillip Whidden

      Dear Basil Drew Eceu, Thank you for your rhyming response to the sonnet sequence. I liked the image of peris.

      Reply
  8. James A. Tweedie

    I must also express my appreciation to Philip for drawing my attention to Milton’s poem, “Blest Pair of Sirens,” a fine set of lyrics for any anthem-writer to draw from–including, Parry!

    The two Sirens are, of course, Voice and Verse as the opening lines explain:

    Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heav’n’s joy,
    Sphere-born harmonious sisters, Voice and Verse,
    Wed your divine sounds, and mixed pow’r employ . . .

    In Milton’s imagery, the marriage of these two Sirens/Muses inspires the anthems sung by saints and angles as they offer praise and worship to God and to the Lamb in the heavenly Jerusalem. As St. Augustine once said, “He who sings, prays twice.” Accordingly, I have always felt that a Siren in love with a master text (such as the Latin Mass or Milton’s poem) will happily whisper inspiration into the ear of a skilled composer whose own musical Siren/Muse joins the words and music together in (as it were) holy matrimony . . . “and the two shall become one . . .”

    Also, as an aside, I must mention that in America, outside the Anglican tradition, Whittier’s poem is usually sung to the tune, “Rest,” composed by Frederick Charles Maker, a contemporary of Parry’s from Bristol, England. Although not as elegant or sophisticated as Parry’s setting, the simplicity of this tune’s quiet, contemplative mood fits the text quite well. I searched for a more elaborate arrangement of this hymn but found none. So, all I have to offer as a sample is a choral performance sung straight from the hymnal.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7whLGU9PT5k

    Reply
  9. Phillip Whidden

    Thanks, James A. Tweedie. If I’m not mistaken, it was George Bernard Shaw who sneered at Parry’s music, saying among other things that “Blest Pair of Sirens” was not as great as the poem it set to music. Shaw despised all three of the top English composers of the time (who all respected each others work). He said in effect that they were a mutual admiration society. Thanks for enlightening me about Frederick Charles Maker being the composer of “Rest” as the music for Whittier’s poem. I was raised outside the Anglican tradition and Maker’s setting was indeed the one I knew. It is as you say quiet and thoughtful. My father loved poetry and among his tip top favourite poems was Whittier’s “Snowbound.” He quoted short passages from it occasionally though more often he recited the entire “The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers” by Felicia Dorohea Hemans. He always delivered the final lines in a hortatory, ecstatic voice:

    What sought they thus afar?
    Bright jewels of the mine?
    The wealth of seas, the spoils of war?— 35
    They sought a faith’s pure shrine!

    Ay, call it holy ground,
    The soil where first they trod:
    They have left unstained what there they found,—
    Freedom to worship God.

    Reply
  10. David Hollywood

    I had never developed a curiosity for Parry and now feel elevated to discover more because of these wonderfully informative and creative poems. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Phillip Whidden

      Well, David Hollywood, thank you for your positive response. I originally wanted to write a sonnet sequence about his whole life but haven’t been able to find a publisher interested in the project. I always assumed Parry was just an upper class stuffed shirt until I started looking at his life. In fact, later in life he became a man strongly supporting women’s suffrage and was otherwise quite progressive in his time.

      Reply

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